Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone: The lifesaving role of women

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 13:13

I just took a taxi to go from my guest house to ActionAid’s office in Freetown and I asked the driver about ebola.  “It’s not here in Freetown, don’t worry about it, we are free, we’re not in danger!” he said laughing. So, I said to him “if you think that this city is ebola free, just because the city is called ‘Freetown’ you are wrong, please take precautions!”

On Friday 18th July 2014, the ebola outbreak update from Sierra Leone’ Ministry of Health said that there are 92 survivors, which is good- it shows that people are receiving early treatment at health facilities, rather than staying at home. But the number of ebola cases continues to rise. There have now been 397 confirmed ebola cases and 127 deaths - that’s an increase of 27 deaths and 72 confirmed cases in just one week.   

The Sierra Leone context is not an easy one to stop ebola from taking more innocent lives. On my way to Freetown, I read that Sierra Leone has come at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index for several years. The index measures development based on three principal dimensions: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. These are measured by life expectancy at birth; adult literacy and combined gross enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education; and per capita income in terms of purchasing power.  Life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 42 - just over half of that in the countries ranked in the top 20. Just 25 percent of women here are literate, and the literacy rate of the entire population is only 37 percent.

With these indicators in mind, ActionAid Sierra Leone has a real challenge to inform the population about ebola, especially women, who are the main focus in our response. Why women? Women here are the carers of sick relatives, so are the most vulnerable to exposure, but they’re also the key to prevention, particularly as they look after children. I really hope that the population listens to our prevention messages. The good thing is that we are working with community leaders and partners knocking on everybody’s doors in two districts Bo and Kono, where ActionAid sponsored children live. 

We are overcoming the illiteracy challenge by spreading prevention messages both face to face and on the radio through discussion groups and playing jingles, to make sure that everyone knows how to prevent ebola, regardless of whether they can read or write. Our jingle says: “don’t eat bush meat, wash your hands constantly with chlorine, and avoid direct contact with body fluids like blood, saliva, vomit, stool, semen, vaginal fluids and urine”.

I am proud to see how my colleagues here have responded so quickly to launch an amazing awareness campaign. Let’s hope that we can defeat ebola so that the whole of Sierra Leone can be ebola-free, like the taxi driver said.